Coronavirus testing our food systems, security

Tuesday, June 9th, 2020 00:00 |
Maize farming. Photo/Courtesy

Eric Kimunguyi 

Coronavirus has brought enormous setbacks, suffering and forecasts of a global depression ahead following the closure of many economies for a long time.

But if there has been one area where it has exposed our global fragility, it is food security.

Certainly, this hasn’t gone unremarked. At the level of international geopolitics, the World Food Programme has warned us all that we are moving into a famine of what it has called “biblical” proportions, by which, it’s fair to say, the WFP meant ‘humanity threatening’.

That made some headlines. But not too much concern at street level.

Likewise, economists and academics keep warning in jargon about food supply chain issues and food security.

What they mean is, we are going to be short of food: very short of food indeed. In fact, we are going to be more short of food later this year than we have ever been in any of our lifetimes.

So, what can we do to prevent starvation?

Well, the trouble began by locking most of the world population into their homes during the planting season, stopping a lot of logistics that were transporting seeds, fertilisers and pest control products, keeping most seasonal workers away from the fields, and additionally messing up the ways food is bought (much of it through restaurants, for instance), resulting in waste and leaving farmers short of income to fund replanting, while other stocks were impaired as different food stocks were, conversely, run down.

Across all, the food chain took a row of hits, with far more food thrown away than normal, and far less planted.

In Kenya, our own horticulture, which was feeding Europeans with vegetables, couldn’t get air cargo space and is still being limited by tripled transport charges.

We also had excessive rain that reduced our last harvests and the largest locust invasion this century.

There is, nonetheless, some time-lag in the impact of all those problems. Take our bread. Wheat accounts for 28 per cent of the cereals we consume, where maize accounts for 56 per cent.

Yet we import nearly all of our wheat to make the bread that is a significant part of our diet.

Some 30 per cent of that imported wheat comes from Russia, but Russia isn’t going to suffer a bread shortage of its own sending its wheat to us to keep our bread going. Threatened with running short, it banned its wheat exports on April 26.

Without imported wheat Kenyans simply won’t have any bread. Nor any rice to speak of either.

From the first glimpse of the hunger now ahead, the Agrochemical Association of Kenya began communicating through every means possible that #EveryCropCounts this year, urging farmers to plant more, government to subsidise inputs, organisations to support every endeavour to control pests, manage soil, and maximise yields. 

But as we face months ahead of unprecedented hunger, encouraging the maximum possible harvests through more planting and higher yields, is but a first step.

For what this pandemic has brought home – and this will speak far more plainly to many in weeks and months to come as they cannot buy the food they need – is just how vulnerable our food system is.

We store little. We add value to little. We lose a lot to low yields and poor pest control, getting sometimes less than a fifth of the possible production from the land we have. 

Despite having some of the finest agricultural land in Africa, we import large swathes of our food, and while we talk about sustainable production in the face of climate change, we have paid far less attention to the resilience of our food supplies to all other disruptions.

And yet the lessons are there. In 2017, we lost 70 per cent of our maize to Fall Army Worm. This year, we have fed millions of locust and now face a shortfall. 

Thus, if a single good thing can come from the food challenges we now face, it will be our attention to stocks and storage, to yields and self-sufficiency and value addition, and to how we make food security about protecting ourselves from all the risks we didn’t protect ourselves from in time for the pandemic.

And if we do that, something great will have come from all of this.  —The writer is CEO, Agrochemical Association of Kenya

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